“A SONG OF ASCENTS. OF DAVID. Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity! It is like the precious oil on the head, running down on the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running down on the collar of his robes! It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion! For there the LORD has commanded the blessing, life forevermore.” (Psalm 133).
The Bible contains many stories of brotherly love but also brotherly hate. The life of one of the first brothers mentioned in the Bible—Cain—ended in envy-induced fratricide at the hand of Abel. Abraham fathered Ishmael and later Isaac, and the former ridiculed the younger. Then Isaac eventually fathered Jacob and Esau—twin brothers who warred from the womb. And Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers, grown men who had grown jealous of the favored position their younger brother had with their father.
One might well expect to find brotherly love and harmony when opening up their Bible, but, left to its own devices, humanity has leaned toward war and disunity rather than love and harmony. The Genesis record is only the start. Moses experienced betrayal by his brother Aaron and sister Miriam. David endured the judgmental looks of Eliab. Even Christ was ridiculed by His younger brothers, when those brothers were still unbelievers. Disunity abounds. Unity is rare.
Only Christ can provide the radical promise of this psalm—unity. Unity is a hard thing to come by for disunity is driven by self-focus and pride, both of which are in great supply amongst our species. True unity requires a new birth. Today, unity amongst God’s people is beautiful, something worth fighting for. Unity can take years to build but seconds to destroy, so it must be guarded, preserved, and defended.
But today, I would like to briefly consider where unity could take our little tribe of churches. Unity inevitably leads to fruit. Jesus prayed hard for our unity. Not the syrupy, flimsy unity that stands for nothing—but a strong unity built around the truth of the apostles (John 17:20-21). Jesus envisioned a unity so tied to His great commission that we would tirelessly work toward His goal and mission. With unity, the mission gets accomplished. Without unity, we flail.
Israelite pilgrims, the original singers of this song, had unity. After ascending to Jerusalem and entering the temple for worship, they looked around. The worship of God was in full effect. Unity was theirs, and nothing could stop them. On God’s team and with God’s heart, they were a unified force.
Unity—the Good Kind—Comes From God
“There the Lord has commanded the blessing.” (Psalm 133:3)
For all this talk of unity, we must remember there is an ugly version of it. Adam and Eve were unified for a moment when they ate the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and that unity led to sin and death. The tower of Babel was almost completed because of godless unity. The same could be said for Israel’s worship of the golden calf and all their subsequent drifts into apostasy—they had unity in a cancerous direction. Joining together for an ugly cause has been the dream of various nations, people, and groups throughout history. And this harmful unity is seen most clearly when the crowds chanted for the death of Jesus.
So, we cannot look to mankind for the type of unity the song sings of; we must instead look to God. Unity is His great plan for the fullness of time, but the unity He is working toward is connected directly to Himself. He has “a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in Him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Ephesians 1:10).
But for all the unity we are to have with God, there is harmony available with other believers that is precious to God. He has killed the hostility between Jew and Gentile and has made a new humanity (Ephesians 2:15-16). It is lovely in His sight when believers live out the unity Christ died to provide, but this unity is rare and precious.
In the millennial reign of Christ, the lion and lamb will lie down together, and the child will play safely by the cobra’s den. But the real magic of the millennium will not be the harmony found in the animal kingdom. It will be the harmony found among human beings. Only Christ can provide it. He is the source of God’s unity. Our song says that it is from Jerusalem that “the Lord has commanded the blessing.” Our Jerusalem is Mount Calvary, the place of the cross. It is from the cross of Christ all true Christian unity is found.
Unity Is Both Healthy and Enjoyable
“It is like the precious oil on the head.” (Psalm 133:2)
Like precious oil and refreshing moisture, unity is good and pleasant. Not many things in life are both, for much that is good is unpleasant, and much that is pleasant is not good. Broccoli is pleasant, and ice cream is good, but rarely is food both. But unity is both good and pleasant—healthy and enjoyable.
Some people seem to love a good fight. Warring is in their nature. But when God’s people can find the good and pleasant joy of unity, we can move. Work gets done. Think of the early church experience. Jesus had told them to go to all the world to make disciples of all nations, but the first few years of the church were exclusively Jewish. Even in the rare forays into the Samaritan territory or the conversion of the Ethiopian, Judaism was the backdrop (Acts 8).
Then Peter preached to Cornelius’ (entirely) Gentile household, and you might have guessed the church would be off to the races, heading for the harvest fields of the nations. But for the next couple of years, a question dogged the church: Do Gentile converts need to embrace Judaism or not? This question divided the church, which slowed the church. Finally, they all came together in Jerusalem to figure out what God was up to. Peter testified, and so did Paul and Barnabas. They had gone into Gentile territory and preached with amazing results. God was at work among the nations. James, the brother of Jesus, gave the synopsis, determining that God had not and would not ask Gentiles to convert to Judaism when receiving the Gospel. The church said “Yes” and “Amen” and ran with that conclusion, and the good news launched out to the world.
It was not until the church was unified that they began to see exponential fruit among the nations. As long as the debate raged on about who God was targeting with His Gospel—and how—the church could never run. But once clear direction and unity were received, the Gospel exploded throughout the world. Unhindered by the unnecessary trappings of what Judaism had become, the church was able to flow with the message of the cross into every part of society.
Many of the disappointments in church-work flow from expectations unshared by others. Those disappointments flow from a lack of unity. Churches, families, marriages, friendships, and workplaces ought to fight for unity of vision, a singularity of expectation. It is good and pleasant, healthy and enjoyable.
As a local church pastor, I have discovered the health and joy that flows from a more unified church. You will never have unity with all people, but when it grows among a group of people, there is beauty. Fruit begins to burst forth, grace begins to flow, and joy begins to become predominant.
Unity Enables Us to Dispense With Uniformity
“Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!” (Psalm 133:1)
The tribes ascended to Jerusalem in unity but not uniformity. It was because they were not uniform that the psalmist noticed their unity, for it is not impressive when highly similar people are also unified. But when a varied spectrum of people gathers in harmony, it is noteworthy. We forget this of Israel. They were comprised of tribes, clans, families, young, old, male, and female. They united around the altar of God, but they were quite different from one another. As they looked around during worship, they were bound to notice their dissimilarities.
The coastal people of Asher may have watched the mountain folk of Judah with keen interest. The small Benjamite tribe may have been in awe of the massive tribe of Manasseh. The warrior tribes may have wondered at the musical tribes. Differences abounded, but in Jerusalem, they stood before God as one.
Unity enables us to dispense with a need for uniformity. Uniformity is what the world system craves—submission to a hyper-specific grid. But that view perpetually shifts. The church is called to passionate unity over various cardinal doctrines—our view of God and His Gospel—but allows for fellowship when engaged in secondary and tertiary issues. Additionally, we recognize that only the Gospel can unite various cultures and generations. Centered upon Christ, we come with all our oddities and peculiarities, united in Christ. He has made a new humanity in His church, and we rejoice.
If this lack of uniformity is forgotten, perhaps it is because we have forgotten Christ’s great commission. He told us to go to all nations (Luke 24:47). And Christ has been preached among the nations and has been believed on in the world (1 Timothy 3:16), but let us continue that great tradition. The nations still must know. People must still believe.
When we embrace this, it seems much easier to embrace a lack of uniformity in the church. My Kenyan brother in Christ is not going to behave exactly as I do. My Hungarian friends will not develop a church looking exactly like the one I serve. We are not called to export our culture, but our Gospel, so we must work hard to celebrate a lack of uniformity among God’s people. If everyone walks and talks and thinks the same within our gatherings, we might be missing something.
When the Spirit gifts a group of people, He gives “different gifts” for the “different ministries” which operate within “different activities” (1 Corinthians 12:4-6, HCSB). In our first birth, He does not create sameness—neither does He for the new birth. Jesus is into unity but not uniformity.
Unity Produces New Life
“It is like the precious oil on the head, running down on the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running down on the collar of his robes! It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion!” (Psalm 133:2-3)
But now we come to the heart of the song. I doubt you have ever described unity the way the song does, with oil running down Aaron’s beard and dew from Mount Hermon dropping onto Jerusalem. But the pilgrim’s analogies are beautiful and fitting; they help us value one another appropriately.
The oil on the head and beard and collar of Aaron points to the ordination of new priests. Aaron was the first priest in Israel. His sons were the future priests, and at the beginning of their priestly careers, they went through an elaborate ordination ceremony, part of which included an anointing with a special oil God had designed. A simple reading of Israel’s history shows us that a high demand for priests went hand in hand with revival in Israel. When they loved God, more priests were needed. When they wandered from God, the priesthood was neglected.
The dew from Mount Hermon dropping onto Jerusalem points to new growth in a dry place. Hermon, far to the north, is high in elevation and lush with growth due to the snow and moisture present there. Jerusalem, on the other hand, is dry, especially during two of the three feasts. To find refreshment and growth in a dry place like Jerusalem would be a wonder.
And this is what a unified church—or a unified group of churches—can expect. New life. New ordinations. New Gospel workers. New churches. Do we want to see a demand for Bible-preaching, Gospel-proclaiming, Jesus-styled servants of God? Do we want to see revival break out in the driest and darkest places? Do we want to see new churches launched out into the world? The more we work with others—perhaps even through partnering more with our church network—the more we will see new life begin to sprout. The oil will flow.
Unity Leads to Life
”… Life forevermore … ” (Psalm 133:3)
The song ends with a cry regarding Israel’s health. The priesthood is in full swing. The mountains of Zion are covered with dew. As the tribes gather to worship, the psalmist celebrates all that flows from that unified worship—“life forevermore.” These thrice annual feasts were a little taste of eternity.
In God’s eternal throne room, we will gather as various tribes and nations and tongues, singing a unified song with unified devotion to our unified God. The community there will be infinitely greater than any community we have known during this time. Still, when unity around Jesus Christ operates today, it provides us a little foretaste of that glorious forever life.
Therefore, unity leads to life, and discord leads to death. But enemies of unity abound, for it is a great weapon. With it, we can preach the Gospel, make disciples, and run in obedience to the living God. With it, we can glorify our God and creator. With it, we can love actively. Without it, we stall. Without it, we fall out of the starting blocks, unable to run our race.