Wineskins Archive

December 6, 2013

The Beauty of Brotherly Unity (July 2012)

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By Al Maxey

If you’ve never done a thorough study of the OT psalms, you have truly missed one of the great blessings of the Scriptures. These 150 poetic expressions of the heart of a people devoted to their God have had a spiritual impact upon countless souls. They provide words of comfort during times of tremendous grief, words of wisdom to those seeking purpose and meaning to life, words of righteous indignation to those deeply troubled by the injustices of our present world, and words of praise and adoration to those filled with love and awe for their Sovereign. Within them we discover both lamentation and exultation, great fear and deep faith, joy and sorrow. They are “word windows” to the soul of a people, and thus speak to each of us personally and profoundly.

One of my favorite psalms also happens to be one of the shortest of the poems of the Psalter — /Psalm 133. It is one of only three psalms containing only three verses each (131, 133, 134). It also falls within the smallest category of psalms: those classified as “wisdom psalms” (of which there are only nine: 1, 37, 49, 73, 112, 119, 127, 128, 133). It is didactic in nature, which simply means the design or intent of the psalm is to convey instruction to those who hear or read it. That bit of instruction is: the vital importance of unity and harmony among brethren. The authorship of this psalm is attributed to David by the Hebrew and Syriac texts, as well as by the Latin Vulgate. However, no name is affixed to the psalm in the Septuagint or the Ethiopic, Arabic or Anglo-Saxon texts. We are left, therefore, with no degree of certainty with respect to authorship, although most favor David. The same is true of the date and occasion of the psalm. Some feel it is from the time of David, others believe it is from the time of the return of the exiles from their long captivity in Babylon. There is scholarly debate on each of these matters. Thus, uncertainty prevails. Psalm 133 is additionally classified as a “Psalm of Degrees/Ascents,” of which there are fifteen (120-134 — which comprise the greater part of the grouping known as the “Great Hallel” psalms — 120-136). According to the Jewish Mishnah these 15 psalms were sung in succession by the Levites on the 15 steps leading to the temple as they ascended to the holy place on special feast days to offer sacrifices. Others believe these psalms were sung by the people as they ascended to Jerusalem for the annual festivals.

Although there may be some degree of uncertainty about some of the background information pertaining to this psalm, very few question its primary teaching: it is good and pleasant for brothers to live together in unity. Indeed, we, and those about us who observe us, are blessed of God when this condition exists, for it is here that we truly embrace and evidence the gift of abundant life itself. This is a message that transcends the poet who penned the words of this poem, as well as one that transcends the time, place and occasion of its writing. It is an eternal truth conveyed poetically for all people everywhere. The gift of life itself is forever connected to loving our Father and loving one another, both of which are expressed by peaceful, harmonious, intimate union. When family dwells together as a single loving unit, there we have the visible manifestation of the beauty of that forever life our God has promised as a gift to His children. It’s when we hate and war with one another that life is replaced with death. “We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love our brothers. Anyone who does not love remains in death” (1 John 3:14). “Dwelling together in love, we have begun the enjoyments of eternity” [Charles Spurgeon, The Treasury of David].

“This psalm is an illustration, in most beautiful language, of brotherly love, particularly in regard to its calm, and gentle, and sweet influence. It is a psalm applicable alike to a church, to a family, or to a gathering of friends” [Dr. Albert Barnes, Notes on the Bible]. “This short psalm might equally well be called ‘A Wise Man’s Ode to Communion among Brethren.’ Having heard this psalm, one quickly realizes that the poet has not finished with his last line. His message has a lingering impact” [The Broadman Bible Commentary, vol. 4, p. 436]. This clearly echoes the sentiment of Muriel Rukeyser (1913-1980): “Our poems will have failed if our readers are not brought by them beyond the poems.” For those who truly grasp the message of this psalm, it is a life-transforming message: such is the “lingering impact” of Truth. Psalm 133 has been used for centuries as a “theme psalm” for various close communities. “It was read at the reception of a new member into the brotherhood of the Knights Templar, and was quoted by St. Augustine as the divine authority for monastic life” [Dr. Charles Ellicott, Commentary on the Whole Bible, vol. 4, p. 280].

>This blessed unity of which the psalmist glowingly speaks, however, is not simply “a formal and outward unity” [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 8, sec. 3, p. 270]; such would more properly be characterized as “uniformity.” It is not a unity of sameness, but of diversity, “for God never makes the brothers of a family alike; and when He remakes men, He does not shape them to a pattern, but rather gives them a new common life” [ibid, p. 273]. Thus, it is a “unity of diversities, for there is no necessary form in which any life is bound to express itself. Genuine unity consists in each individual being his best along his own line” [ibid, p. 272]. “There is no unity in the mere repetition of the same things; acts of uniformity cannot secure it. Music is not a monotone, but a harmony. In a true Christian society there must be variety of thought, feeling, and opinion; of age, position, character. There is no unity where there is no freedom” [<i>ibid</i>]. Whenever a community is built on the foundation of love, there exist the realities of life and liberty. “What the poet of Psalm 133 is talking about is nothing less than the fellowship which is called within the New Testament writings: Koinonia” [The Broadman Bible Commentary, vol. 4, p. 437]. “We can dispense with uniformity if we possess unity” [Charles Spurgeon, The Treasury of David].

The psalmist provides a couple of examples (familiar to his readers) of the fragrant and refreshing nature of this loving brotherly union: anointing oil and morning dew. First of all, “the psalmist compares the expression of harmonious unity to the sacerdotal oil” [The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 5, p. 816]. This was a very special, and extremely sacred, oil that was to be made precisely as the Lord commanded and used for no other purpose than those specified by Him. This is all spelled out for the children of Israel in Exodus 30:22-33. It was used to anoint the tabernacle, its sacred articles, and the priests. There were a number of fragrant spices mixed into this oil (including myrrh and cinnamon) that were very pleasant to the senses. To be at the tabernacle, and with the priests, would be a “good and pleasant” experience due to the sweet smells that wafted from them. As Aaron had this oil poured liberally over his head, running down into his beard and onto the opening (collar) of his garment, he would give off a pleasing fragrance. In like manner, brotherly love and unity are “good and pleasant” to the senses of those who behold it. It attracts, rather than repels. Division produces a stench; it is foul to the senses. Unity born of love is savory; sweet-smelling. If we ever hope to attract the lost to the fellowship of the saved, we had better be giving off a “good and pleasant” odor. Oil, of course, is a symbol of the Holy Spirit, and any priesthood of believers with the Holy Spirit poured out liberally upon them, running down and covering them, provides a spiritual fragrance that draws people to such a fellowship.

“As fragrant as the sacred oil used in priestly consecration is the odor of brotherly love. And as an exquisite fragrance attracts whilst anything offensive repels, so the presence of unity in the Church is a constant invitation, unformed and voiceless, but influential and effective. No one will come to the community where discord is the prevailing state; many hearts will be won, many feet will repair, to the circle where peace and concord dwell” [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 8, sec. 3, p. 271]. It’s a tragic truth that “no small part of the obstructions to the progress of religion in the world has been caused by the strifes and contentions of the professed friends of God. A new impulse would be given at once to the cause of religion if all of the followers of the Lord Jesus Christ acted in harmony– i.e., if every Christian would properly recognize every other Christian as his brother” [Dr. Albert Barnes, Notes on the Bible]. In other words, the unity that stems from true brotherly love is evangelistic. In my view, it is the purest form of evangelism: the evidence to others of the power of the Spirit to change lives and form loving relationships.

The psalmist also employs another example: that of the refreshing dew sent forth by the Lord, and specifically the dew on Mt. Hermon, the effects of which were shared with the surrounding hills. Mt. Hermon, which was about 100 miles from Jerusalem, was about 10,000′ above sea level and well-known for its abundance of dew, making the lush greenery of the mount proverbial. “During the summer months (from May to October) virtually no precipitation falls on Jerusalem, even in the form of dew. During these months at least two pilgrimages were held” [The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 5, p. 817]. Imagine how parched these pilgrims must have been as they journeyed great distances to Jerusalem, and how refreshing it would have been to have had some of that cool dew from Mt. Hermon upon and within them. Our pilgrimage through this world can also be rather harsh and grueling, but the loving fellowship of a united spiritual family is like the cool dew of Hermon: it refreshes, it enlivens, it renews those who are weary and faint.

“For there the Lord bestows His blessing: even life forevermore” (Psalm 133:3, NIV). “The referent of ‘there’ is ambiguous” [The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 5, p. 817]. Some feel it refers to Mount Zion, with this being symbolic of the New Jerusalem. Others see the tabernacle or temple in view. Most scholars agree with Adam Clarke, however, who declares that the word “there” simply means: “where this unity is” [Clarke’s Commentary, vol. 3, p. 653]. When God calls men together, and unites them by His Holy Spirit, and these brethren dwell together in peace and harmony, there we find the “place” of life. Matthew Henry (1662-1714), in commenting upon this passage, stated, “The blessing that God commands on those that dwell in love is life forevermore, which is the blessing of blessings” [Commentary on the Whole Bible]. Over a century later, commenting on Psalm 133, Albert Barnes (1798-1870) expresses very well my own hope and prayer: “Happy will be that day when the church shall be so united that this psalm may be sung everywhere, as expressing what is, and not merely what should be” [Notes on the Bible].

Help Them Be One


Al Maxey

Alone in a garden, His work nearly done,
He prayed for His people: “Lord, let them be one!
Protect them from evil, guard them with care,
Never desert them, always be there.”

A blood soaked brow pressed by a crown;
Briers and thistles brought walls tumbling down.
Slave and free, Greek and Jew;
Factions made futile, family made new.

“Father, forgive them,” He whispered above,
Looking on hatred, pouring forth love.
Agony and suffering, misery and pain;
Stripes for our healing, death for our gain.

A criminal’s cross, a rich man’s tomb,
A stone at the door, deepening the gloom.
The heavens went dark, the earth felt a quake;
God came to man, gave His life for our sake.

I view His passion through eyes filled with tears,
Yet know His gift will endure through the years.
‘Twas for freedom He died, thus in freedom I live.
To see others free, my life would I give.

Liberty is costly, the price was God’s Son.
A life given freely; a victory won.
My pledge to the Father, my pledge to His Son:
I’ll work with Your people, I’ll help them be ONE.

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