The Sweet Unity of Psalm 133

Nothing tears at the inner fabric of our humanity more than ruptured relationships. Whether it be the heart of a family ripped apart through divorce, or rebellious children, a church fellowship shredded by conflict, or all the other levels and layers of human relationships that are the perpetual casualties of Adam’s fall. It is often only in the midst of division that we fondly wish for the sweet unity we once knew.

This is very much at the heart of Psalm 133, one of the best loved psalms in the Songs of Ascent anthology. A psalm, interestingly, that was composed by David – the king who spent much of his life and reign caught up in conflict, but whose legacy was a truly settled and united kingdom.

For those familiar with this psalm, or its many paraphrased versions, it is easy to lose sight of what lies behind it as we focus on its content. Yet, a brief reflection on its larger context will only accentuate what lies at its heart.

In the first instance, this is a psalm about unity sung by the people of a disunited kingdom. Although, in light of its attribution to David, it was composed prior to the great schism after Solomon’s death and the division of the kingdom between Rehoboam and Jeroboam, it was sung thereafter by pilgrims who were on either side of that divide. And, again not without significance, it was not modified to reflect that sad state of affairs, but still expressed the hope of a restored oneness. In that sense, the sweetness of the unity it celebrates is set against the backdrop of the bitterness of a fractured community.

Of course, there was much more at stake than a political entity. It was not merely that a realm had been ruptured; but the precious ecclesia of God himself had been torn in two – with all the repercussions this had for his reputation and glory in the eyes of the nations. The scars of the internal rebellion instigated by David’s grandchildren were borne by the successive generations that were to come. The knife that had severed the tendons of their ethnic and national unity cut deeper to tear at the heart of the spiritual unity which defined their true identity. It isn’t hard for the spiritual heirs and successors of Israel to identify with this when we experience the agony of internal strife within the church of Jesus Christ.

Another background detail that helps us gain perspective on this psalm is that it was sung by men, women and children who were heading up to Jerusalem for one of the stated Feasts and Festivals of the Old Covenant administration. There was a meal, indeed multiple meals involved and they were looking forward to it. Meals they would not only share together in their family units (as with the Passover) but wider communal meals that included neighbours and even aliens and strangers. Just as has always been true in a general sense, a shared meal table has a unique ability to expose the truth about the health of our relationships. (It is hard to look a fellow-diner in the eye if we have fallen out with them.) How much more in these ceremonial meals, where God himself was the unseen head of the table.

The fact that these were covenant meals – at the very least in the sense of their being part of the covenantally-ordered structure of the life of Israel – provides a pointer to the definitive covenant meal instituted by our Lord himself. Indeed, the fact that it was the Passover meal that he redefined and redirected in the flow of redemptive history, meant that the table fellowship it represented in a unique sense with regard to the roots of our redemption was designed to colour every other expression of fellowship. The key thought being, when communion with God is restored through his grace in salvation, so too – of necessity – is our communion with fellow blood-bought sinners. (This explains why the well-known words of institution for the Lord’s Supper in 1Corinthians 11 were first spoken in the context of the damaged fellowship that had emerged in the love feasts of that church.) The Lord’s Supper is a reconciling ordinance. It not only calls us back to deeper communion with the God to whom we are united through Christ; but also, to reconciliation and restored relationships with those whom we have offended, or have offended us within the communion of saints.

The final background detail worth noting in relation to this psalm is the fact it is forward looking. As with many of the Ascent Songs, it is focused on Zion. Not merely as an earthly location, but something that pointed to the greater reality it was designed to represent. It was a tangible replica of the invisible reality of the new order of world to come – presented so vividly in relation to Christ in the eleventh chapter of Hebrews.

The Israelites always knew this in their heart of hearts. Even though there were times when the structures loomed so large on their horizons, they obscured what they were meant to represent, they still knew God could not be confined within them. So, as they sang their way to Jerusalem on these pilgrimages, they were looking forward to the supreme blessings of what God had promised for eternity.

This note surely resonates with the true pilgrims of every age. We, like them, are looking for a ‘better country,’ ‘a city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.’ The place where the sweetest unity imaginable dwells. The place where the definitive unity of the Holy Trinity is stamped deeply on the community of his people. This is the sweet unity for which we yearn and which can only be ours through the one who was cut off in order that we might be forever grafted in to the fellowship that will never fail.

Mark Johnston