A song of ascents. Of David.
1 “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is when brothers dwell together in unity!
2 “It is like the precious oil poured on the head, running down on the beard, running down on Aaron’s beard, down upon the collar of his robes.
3 “It is as if the dew of Hermon were falling on Mount Zion.New International Version, slightly amended with reference to other versions
For there the Lord commands His blessing — even life
Unity in the body of Christ has long been deeply important to me. I’ve often joked that if you want to get a burden for unity, go live in Ireland — it’s not just the fighting in the north between Catholics and Protestants I witnessed as a student there in the 1980s, but also in the south, between the various denominations and charismatic groups, the house churches and independents, all of whom at times have seemed deeply divided on doctrinal matters and styles of worship.
As I began to pray for revival over the years, I felt God distinctly sharpened the point about unity to me — Jesus cannot return for a divided bride, so we urgently need to “put our house in order”. It has therefore been my constant prayer and intercession, and frequently the theme of my meditation as I have read and studied the Bible, read up on church history, and witnessed countless divisions and misunderstandings among many otherwise well-meaning individuals who appear hopelessly unable to walk or work together. So, how can we both understand and achieve unity?
I believe that while God has revealed His will and His command for unity, He has also given us the answers to the vital question of how to achieve it. This is what led me to meditate on the symbolism in this wonderful psalm in the Old Testament, as well as other relevant passages in the Old Testament, the gospels (specifically Jesus’ prayer for his disciples in John 17:20–23) and New Testament epistles — particularly Ephesians chapter 4 — which I will also discuss later.
For now, let’s look at this very short, but deeply meaty, “psalm of David” to unpack a little of what it says — I have referred to others’ notes on these from the Israel Bible commentary online, among other sources.
Symbolism and significance of the ‘song of ascents’
First, this psalm is described as a song of ascents — which means ‘going up’. It was typically applied to the Jews’ pilgrimages to Jerusalem, the Holy City, to worship God in the Temple, because Jerusalem is set on the top of a hill and the temple stood on a mount crowning the hill. Therefore, the 12 tribes of Israel traditionally ‘go UP to Jerusalem’ to worship God in the temple.
In addition, ever since the time of Abram/Abraham, who built his first altar and called on the name of the Lord on the hills of east of Bethel (Genesis 12:8), worship was traditionally offered on hills or high up on mountains, as these were seen as being nearer to God or a place of closer communion with Him. The physical, geographic depiction of ‘going up’ to a high (or higher) place to worship reveals the truth that the highest act of commitment and devotion we can give to God is to worship Him, particularly in challenging times or when we struggle with doubt, can’t understand what He is doing in our lives, or feel unable to hear His voice. This is when our act of worship is most truly a ‘lifting up’ or ‘going up’ of our souls.
The ‘high places’ also represent places of difficulties or struggle. Elsewhere in the psalms and in Habakkuk, God is the helper who “makes my feet like hinds’ [deers’] feet to walk upon my high places” (Psalm 18:33, Habakkuk 3:19) — in other words, as the psalmist and prophet express, it is God Himself who provides them with the strength and graceful ability to manoeuvre the steep, rugged, mountainous terrain of their struggles. Only a very skilled and agile creature such as a deer or mountain goat can navigate some of those incredibly challenging, near-vertical places, as was so delightfully depicted in Hannah Hurnard’s allegorical classic, Hind’s Feet on High Places.
Our ‘high places’ can also represent the steep divides and seemingly intractable clashes we experience in human relationships, where misunderstandings, strife, wounded spirits, griefs and temptation to seek revenge can be rife. In such times, we may feel helpless to change the dynamic, and so must learn to rely on God to give us this same ‘hind’s feet’ grace to deal with our own ‘high places’ of pride and selfishness as we seek to restore our broken relationships, knowing we cannot do this in our own strength.
History is filled with evidence of mankind’s inability to solve deep, longstanding rifts created by centuries of conflict in places such as the Middle East and the US, where tribal and racial tensions teeter constantly on the brink of explosion. Here even the greatest skills of human diplomacy, statesmanship or political manoeuvres fail to wrest the kind of lasting peace and justice humanity longs for, with often tragic consequences. Yet disunity and division in the Body of Christ — whether from the past historical conflicts between the Orthodox and Roman Catholic or Catholic and Protestant traditions, or between individual Christians in the church — also breaks God’s heart.
It is therefore all the more significant that Jesus described His disciples as a “city set on a hill whose light cannot be hidden” (Matthew 5:14). His unified body, the church, is called to triumph over the world’s ‘high places’ of darkness and division by demonstrating unity, peace and love — which, indeed, “is life forevermore”. The powerful light emitted when this is present is one our broken world is desperately crying out for.
David and disunity
Second, Psalm 133 is described as “A psalm of David”. While we don’t know when it was written, we do know there were several times in David’s life when he had problems with disunity — for example, his own brothers did not treat him very kindly when he was growing up, although he is recorded as bringing them food when they were at the battle front (I Sam 17:28). But his greatest heartache was the toxic relationship among his sons, especially when his son Absalom killed his other son Amnon because he had raped his sister Tamar (2 Sam 13:28).
He may have been reflecting on those bumpy moments between Moses and Aaron, as described in Numbers 12:1. Or perhaps he was instead thinking positively about his close, brotherly bond with King Saul’s son Jonathan, as described in 1 Samuel 18:3. Such deep love surely provided a sharp contrast to the murderous hatred and jealousy he experienced daily from Saul — either way, David had experienced enough disunity in his own life to realise exactly how “precious’ and rare indeed true unity is.
Now, note that the word “behold” means “Stand aside, look at and give your full attention to this amazing thing!” God is trying to get our attention here to the awesomeness that is revealed when His body is fully functioning in unity. He wants us to observe how significant it is because this reveals His heart for us to be one in love, in Him — as a Father, He has no greater joy than to see His children loving each other and living together in unity .
Such unity is “good” because it reveals the WILL of God; we know it brings joy to His heart. It is also “pleasant” — it is always much more enjoyable for us to be at peace and harmony with our brothers and sisters than have to deal with constant strife and friction.
The Jews who were on their way to worship God in Jerusalem had to make a pilgrimage by camping (“dwelling”) in tents along the way. This surely brought many opportunities for conflicts to arise as their differences were brought into sharp relief. Some were old, some young; some families, some single; they represented all walks of life and occupations, and came from different tribes and regions, possibly with different dialects and customs. As they travelled and dwelt together in tents along the way, their relationships would have been sorely tried and tested. Therefore, part of their journey in going up to worship in Jerusalem would have been about learning to be at peace with each other, in much the same way it’s both preparation for the act of worship and part of our calling as believers to learn to dwell, walk and work together.
Going with the flows
Now, the next descriptions concern the opposite direction — this time it is not about something or someone that is going up, but instead the flowing down and extending out of two types of liquid: oil and dew. This in itself is significant, as it is the very essence and nature of a liquid to flow. Therefore, the choice of these two ingredients is in itself a message to us about how to maintain “the unity of the Spirit in the bonds of peace” (Ephesians 4:3): it means we have to stay liquid — to “go with the flow”, literally, by remaining yielded to and in tune with the Holy Spirit.
Oil symbolises the blessing and glory of God being poured out and flowing down, as well as symbolising the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. It is God’s desire to pour out His Spirit on all flesh (Joel 2:28), but also on and through us as His first fruits (Acts 2:17) so that the rest of the world will be blessed and come to know Him through us.
The oil being poured out on Aaron’s head signifies a few things: first, it is symbolic of Aaron’s priestly anointing, calling and ordaining; second, it is symbolic of Jesus — the high priest of the new covenant and the Head of the church, the Body of Christ. Note that Moses and Aaron were both anointed and called of God to minister, but whereas Moses spoke face to face with God as a prophet and leader of the people, Aaron stood in the Holy Place, received from God, and ministered to the people as a priest. They were both significant callings, which together completed God’s work among the people.
Oil was also used in the Middle East as a common form of blessing for visitors, as it was poured on guests’ heads as a welcome as they entered their host’s abode. The oils used for this purpose would have been perfumed or blended with aromatic spices, which would have been both a soothing and sanitary way of refreshing guests who would likely be weary, sweaty and probably quite smelly after travelling through desert lands in the hot sun.
When the oil is sprinkled on the robes, they become holy (Exodus 29: 21) — so the oil running down from the head and flowing down onto the collar and then on down the robes is symbolic of how the presence of the Holy Spirit works in and through us to purify and sanctify us. That it begins with the head is symbolically significant, because in order to be holy, we must have a truly renewed mind. And just as the head directs the body in actions, so we must remain connected to the Lord by keeping our eyes on Him. It is by being jointly engaged in maintaining our focus on and connection to the head that we as a body can achieve unity of purpose and effect.
The outflowing of the oil onto the outer garments and then onto the feet and ground pertains to our commission to “go into all the world and preach the gospel” (Matthew 28: 16–20). That is why the apostles were told to wait in Jerusalem for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit; it was the New Testament version of the ordaining and consecration by outpoured oil.
The other significant liquid here is the dew. Note that dew is a common symbol of the Lord’s bountiful blessings (as seen in Prov. 19:2, Isaiah 18:4, Hosea 14:5, Micah 5:7). While rain is always traditionally seen as a sign of God’s love for mankind because it makes crops grow so we have food, dew is related to divine blessing because it forms from condensation of atmospheric water vapour, which does not form if there are clouds. Therefore, God’s dew can only wet the earth if we do not harbour any ‘clouds’ of grievances, bitternesses or unforgiving attitudes towards each other.
The geographical location of Mt Hermon is to the north of Jerusalem (eg where Mt Zion is), rising up above the Upper Jordan Valley — so the melting snows from the mountain were referred to as ‘dews’ because they flowed down from the mountain to refresh and revive the parched desert landscape. Such dews were often the only water available for crops and drinking etc; they were a vital source of sustenance as they flowed in to feed the Jordan River and the oasis of Jericho. In a dry land such as Israel, the melting snows or ‘dews’ became very precious indeed.
Unity is our command. The place of unity, then, as described here, is where the Lord “commands” or “bestows” His blessing — the blessing of eternal life in Him (“life forever more”) .
We are in fact ‘commanded’ in the New Testament to seek unity. We know that we have eternal life in Jesus and have become part of His resurrected body as members of His body; yet all the members of the body need to function in one accord for any movement to take place. In the same way a human body would get nowhere if its arm and leg went in separate directions, so too does God need the members of His body, His church, to act in one accord. Only then can He achieve His direction and purposes.
God’s will for us to be at peace first with Him, and then with each other, is revealed in the symbolism of the cross: it points both vertically, heavenward and horizontally, from side to side, along with Jesus’ outstretched arms. Before He was crucified, Jesus prayed earnestly for His disciples to be one: “My prayer is not for them alone, but for all those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them will be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that You have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (John 17:20–24).
Likewise, in Ephesians 1:10, Paul describes this will and plan of God “to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ”. He reminds of us of the command to seek and preserve unity: “Live in harmony with one another… insofar as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Romans 12:18) and of the royal law, the law of love: “Love your neighbour as yourself… love does no harm to a neighbour.” (Romans 13:9–10). So, as his disciples, we know that unity is God’s will and His plan; it proceeds from his nature, and is also His command.
So how do we achieve unity?
Yet how do we, practically speaking, achieve unity when we are so different and so easily misunderstand each other, disagree, and fail to see eye to eye on matters of doctrine or principles, or judge each other harshly while omitting to ‘walk a mile in another man’s moccasins’? Well, this is where, in Ephesians chapter 4, Paul provides the answers:
“Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit — just as you were called to one hope when you were called — one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and in all.” (Ephesians 4:2–5, New International Version). Humility — and honouring each other — is the foundation stone of unity.
“It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the whole body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God, and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” (Ephesians 4:11–12, italic emphasis mine). Just like Aaron and Moses had different callings and functions as prophet and priest, together they were anointed and appointed by God to lead and serve the people of Israel — so too in valuing and humbly receiving from others according to their different gifts and ministries, we may all become mature and grow in grace and spiritual wisdom.
“Therefore, each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbour, for we are all members of one body… do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those that listen. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander [gossip], along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ forgave you.” (Ephesians 4:25, 29–32, italic emphasis mine.)
I understand from this last passage that we are called to be absolutely real, open and honest with each other, not to wear masks or pretend to be something or someone we are not. That is how we can learn to truly understand and empathise with each other, and therefore build each other up rather than tearing each other down.
I call on all of my brothers and sisters in Christ, whichever your denomination or doctrine, to endeavour to practise these behaviours and ways of speaking with each other. In these days of deep division and despair across the world, we must urgently seek to shine that light of unity, so that indeed we may fulfil Jesus’ earnest prayer that the world may know and see his love and the Father’s love, and that we may be one and mature or fully formed in grace, even as they are one.
An Irish blessing
As I began this meditation by referencing the troubles of division and disunity among Christians I had witnessed as a student and young Christian in Ireland, I’d like to close with a few quotes from my dear friend and brother in Christ, Shay Phelan. Shay, a trained and gifted actor, singer-songwriter and compelling speaker, has made it his life’s mission to memorise the entire book of Ephesians, and to preach and share from this wherever he goes. He and a fellow Christian have walked across Ireland and elsewhere in the British Isles to share the gospel and display the bond of unity in the Spirit they share.
Here are some quotes from his own meditation on Ephesians 4 that are specifically relevant to what I have been sharing; if possible, I will add the entire PDF for download, or please message me at firstname.lastname@example.org for a complete copy.
“We need to be open to receive from all God’s people in the wider church, when they have something God wants us to learn from them. And it may well be that we have something God wants us to share with them. Do you see the abortive nature of our divisions? If I cut myself off from you, then I lose the gift to me that you are in God’s scheme of things. And I rob you of the blessing God has given me to share with you. No wonder there is so much immaturity still in the Body of Christ.”
Shay Phelan, Excerpt from Reflections on Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians
“There is something about the word mature that suggests to my mind all the perfection of a glorious summer’s day. The mature person has poise and wisdom; he or she knows how to measure what they hear with the truth, and how to graciously and respectfully, and with confidence, speak the truth, yet the mature Christian humbly accepts that they may not always get it right. The mature Christian is diligent in the Lord’s work and yet maintains a deep, inner rest, an unswerving trust in God. He or she knows how to give and receive love in the joy of Christ.”
“Speaking the truth in love is a key phrase for how we may proceed to grow together in the church. How many times have I won the battle but lost the war, as it is said, because of the tone of voice or the attitude behind my words? I may be correct in my point of view, but completely wrong in my attitude to the person with whom I am in debate.
“In Paul’s second letter to Timothy he gives him much advice for his role as pastor. In chapter 2 verse 24 – 25 he says: “…the Lord’s servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth….”
“Every time I forget to apply these words in a difficult conversation, I find I lose my sense of peace. If I have become defensive or arrogant in tone, I am better off shutting up, even though I may be correct in what I am endeavouring to say. Though not a pastor, as a son of God I am called to speak the truth in love and that is what brings real growth.
“As we mature and grow together in Christ we are interlinked and connected, just as the various parts of a body are connected, and we are built up in love”
“Let’s finish this message with those verses from Psalm 133 we quoted earlier:
“How good and pleasant it is
when brothers live together in unity…
For there the LORD bestows His blessing,
even life forevermore.”
N.B. In the wake of George Floyd’s death and the ensuing riots across the US, UK and elsewhere, I have been seeking the Lord in prayer regarding how we, as believers, should respond. I felt the Lord spoke two simple words to me: ‘feet’ and ‘brothers’. As I prayed about it further, I felt He was saying that those of us who are perhaps unintentionally (or even intentionally, which of course is another matter) guilty of any sense of a racist kind of white privilege urgently need in this time to demonstrate a real servant heart towards our black brothers and sisters, both through doing active listening to them as they share their experiences of ill-treatment and racist abuse perpetrated on them, and so metaphorically help to ‘wash their feet’ of all those festering scars and pains inflicted on them — even as Jesus did when He washed the feet of his disciples and urged them to wash one another’s feet. Perhaps even a public foot-washing ceremony, which all churches of all denominations all around the world could be used as a symbolic act of love, service and healing. May God lead us all into His ways of peace. Amen.
N.B. As a further addendum to this, I spoke recently with Andrew Philips at Premier Christian Radio about the recent Black Lives Matter protests in High Wycombe and Marlow on his Faith, Hope and Love broadcast – I was on at around 11.30am; you can listen retrospectively here: https://www.premierchristianradio.com/Shows/Weekday/Faith-Hope-and-Love/Episodes/Faith.-Hope-and-Love25