In the late fall of 2017 and through the start of 2018 I wrote a series of blog-posts about the “Psalms of Ascent,” a collection of Psalms which have traditionally been associated with pilgrimage to Jerusalem. I will be recycling a few of those posts as devotions in the next few days. I hope that these explorations of the Psalms will be a blessing to you.
Psa. 133 A Song of Ascents. [altered slightly from NRSV by PHL]
1 How very good and pleasant it is
when kindred live together in unity!
2 It is like the precious oil on the head,
coming down upon the beard,
on the beard of Aaron,
coming down over the collar of his robes.
3 It is like the dew of Hermon,
which comes down on the parched land.
For there the Lord ordained his blessing,
I have made slight revisions of the NRSV translation. They are as follows:
Verses 2a&b and 3b all use the same verb which is to “come down.” It is the same verb used to describe the mission of Moses to “come down” to Egypt and confront Pharaoh. It is used in others Psalms as well as in the prophets to speak of both snow and rain coming down to nourish the earth and also God coming down in power to make things right. Notably, it is also used to describe the descent of the manna in Numbers 11:9. The NRSV, by translating the verb as “running down” in verse 2 and as “falls” in verse three obscures the poetic parallelism of the Hebrew and I have altered the translation to preserve it. Further, I am convinced by Robert Altar’s justification of translating the emendation of the word tsiyah “parched land”, over the Massoretic text tsiyon “Zion,” in verse 3. When you consider that Mount Hermon is not in Zion it makes sense to me to prefer the ancient variant on the text which offers “parched land.” Dew from Hermon would not travel to Zion, but it would easily drift down the slopes of the mountain and moisten the surrounding “parched land.”
Now that those textual concerns are out of the way, let us turn to the poetry of the Psalm. The oil and the dew are both blessings which come down like the goodness and pleasantness of unity in community. Unity in community is often elusive. Any group of people, even pilgrims, who spend a bit of time together will begin to feel struggle of this. To bear with those others who trouble you is an important aspect of Christian discipleship.
In my own experience, the greatest danger to Christian community is “Truth.” Perhaps that will surprise you. But I join Deitritch Bonhoeffer in the sentiment that it is the disciple who is convinced that he or she is “in the truth” who does the most to destroy Christian community. They are so convinced that they are right that it blinds them to the demands of love which might build community. Bonhoeffer warns of this powerfully in his book Life Together.
“He enters the community with his demands, sets up his own law, and judges the brethren and God Himself accordingly. . . and finally [he becomes] the despairing accuser of himself.”
John Calvin in writing his commentary about Psalm 133 says the following:
“We are to set ourselves against those turbulent spirits which the devil will never fail to raise up in the Church, and be sedulous to retain intercourse with such as show a docile and tractable disposition. But we cannot extend this intercourse to those who obstinately persist in error, since the condition of receiving them as brethren would be our renouncing him who is Father of all, and from whom all spiritual relationship takes its rise. The peace which David recommends is such as begins in the true head, and this is quite enough to refute the unfounded charge of schism and division which has been brought against us by the Papists, while we have given abundant evidence of our desire that they would coalesce with us in God’s truth, which is the only bond of holy union.”
I find Calvin’s remarks so very disappointing. He begins well, spurning the “turbulent spirits” which come from the devil . . . but then falls prey to the falsehood that he can only remain in community with those who “would coalesce with us in God’s truth, which is the only bond of holy union.” If that were so, then how does Jesus remain in community with a bunch of disciples who clearly did not understand God’s truth? Jesus is bound to them in community not by truth, but by love. His love for them over-rides all other obstacles to community.
When pilgrims set out in pursuit of God, it does not take long before we each are given the opportunity to “bear with one another’s faults, and so fulfill the law of Christ” [Galatians 6:2]. Someone else will have inconvenient needs, or irritating habits, or frustrating impulses . . . and it is then that we are to recall “How every good and pleasant it is when kindred dwell together in unity.” The first step to building that unity is for each pilgrim to give up the desire to change others in preference for cultivating an authentic love for the others. Thomas Merton has written powerfully about this kind of love:
“The Beginning of love is to let those we love be perfectly themselves, and not to twist them to fit our image. Otherwise we love only the reflection of ourselves we find in them.”
– No Man Is An Island
So, I will be praying about my own commitment to dwelt together in unity, and I will be seeking the blessings of love and understanding both for myself (and my foibles) as I seek to accommodate the foibles of others. I will repeat the mantra that I am meant to love the person in front of me — instead of constantly wanting that person to be some other version of himself or herself.
Daily Collect: God who hopes that we will live together in unity. You show us what it looks like to be community in the mystery and harmony of the Holy Trinity. Help us to learn the wisdom of mutual submission in love and respect for the other. Guide us as we seek to shape communities of peace and unity. Amen.