Songs of the Ascent: Psalms 133 & 134

Breakfast with the Bible, Chelmsford Cathedral 26 February 2017, on Psalms 133 & 134.


PSALM 133:   LIVING IN HARMONY

The Blessedness of Unity (NRSV) In praise of living in peace (GNB)

The blessing of fellowship (Motyer)

I once preached a sermon on this psalm, in which I began: “I long to be the pastor of the friendliest church in town…. I long to be the pastor of a church where Psalm 133 is a reality:

How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity” (NRSV)

“How wonderful it is, how pleasant, for God’s people to live together in harmony” (GNB).

“How wonderful, how beautiful, when brothers & sisters get along” (The Message)

Some scholars have argued that this Psalm was originally about the joys of family life.  I am not convinced. But this psalm was ‘a song of ascent’ which Jewish pilgrims sang as they made their way to Jerusalem for one of the great festivals. There were not singing about the joys of family life – but rather the joy that comes from being part of God’s family.

We are brothers and sisters, for we are children of God.  “How wonderful it is, how pleasant, for God’s people to live together in harmony

harmony” – that’s the word GNB uses.

The NRSV along with most other versions speaks of “unity

But harmony is a much richer word.  Harmony is about unity in spite of difference.

I am reminded of some words which Paul wrote to the church at Rome: “May God… grant you to live in harmony with one another… so that together you may with lone voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom 15.5,6 NRSV).

If the truth be told, the Cathedral is made up of a motley crew of people: young and old, men and women, black and white, university graduates and school dropouts, people on benefits and people in the higher tax band – and yet are one in Christ.

So when sing the praises of God, we sing in harmony – with one voice!

How wonderful it is, how pleasant, for God’s people to live together in harmony”!!

The Psalmist goes on: “It is like the precious oil on the head, running down upon the beard, the beard of Aaron, running down over the collar of his robes” (v2).

What a yukky picture. But we are dealing here with something which any ancient oriental would have appreciated.

In the words of one commentator: “The deliciously scented oil which slowly drips down from the head upon the beard is regarded as something especially beautiful and refined not only by the Israelites, but also by the Egyptians and the ancient Greeks” (Weiser).

From our 21st century perspective it all seems a little grotesque – or is it?  Now that male grooming is very much thing, perhaps it is a little more understandable.

Whether it is oil for male grooming, or a perfume for a woman, there is something attractive about a sweet-smelling aromatic oil.

The same is true of a church where “God’s people live together in unity/harmony”.

The very unity of God’s people has an attractive quality about it.

People want to come back to such a church.

The Psalmist goes on: “It is like the dew of Mount Hermon which falls on the hills of Zion” (v3). Really? At first sight it appears that the Psalmist has got his geography wrong.

Mount Hermon was in Syria, north of Israel, while Jerusalem, here called Zion, was to the south of the country. However, we are probably dealing with a proverbial expression –  Mount Hermon was as well known for its heavy dew as Newcastle was known for its coal.

To quote the commentator again:

The poet has probably in mind a summer morning when the region of the mountains of Zion, intensely hot in the daytime under the blazing heat of the sun, has been refreshed in the night by the ample fall of dew and now in the radiant freshness and splendour of its colours presents a picture of rejuvenated beauty and joy in life” (Weiser).

Or to use a totally different metaphor, to enter a church where all is joy and peace is like walking into an air-conditioned hotel on a hot and sticky summer’s day!  It’s such a refreshing experience. It’s just so good to get out of the heat and become human again.

What a picture – of church!

There the Lord has ordained his blessing – life for evermore” (v3b)

A church where harmony reigns, a church where people not only ‘get along together’ (Peterson), but actually love one another, is a church that God blesses.

And he blesses it with “life for evermore”.

Is the Psalmist saying that where a faith community has got its act together, then its future is assured? Maybe.

If a church fails to live out the love of Jesus, then it has to all intents and purpose the death sentence pronounced upon it.  People will not come to a church which, to quote the ditty, is ‘arctic in temperature and where deacons walk down the aisles like polar bears’.

Only a church where people “live together in harmony” has a future – only such a church will know God’s “blessing”.

FOR REFLECTION:

When have you experienced true unity or harmony in church?  When have you not?  How might unity/harmony be created/restored?

PSALM 134:  FINAL WORDS OF BLESSING

The last and the shortest of the psalms of ascent.

The NRSV entitles this Psalm “Praise in the night”; the GNB “A call to praise God”.  But in fact the psalm has a two-fold aspect: God and those who worship him.   Here is to be found the ultimate purpose of pilgrimage: to praise the Lord and receive his blessing.  Indeed, is that not the purpose of worship in general.  We go to church Sunday by Sunday to sing our praises, but also to receive his blessing.

Come bless the Lord, all you servants of the Lord

Who are the servants of the Lord?   Scholars debate as to whom this psalm is addressed.

  • Some believe that in the first place, temple priests are in mind. Translations like the NIV & the REB which describe these servants as those “who minister by night in the house of the Lord” reinforce this impression.  Indeed  some suggest that we have here a ‘liturgy’ conduction between the day-time priests going off-duty and the night-time priests going on duty – a kind of priestly changing of the guard.
  • Personally, I think there is more to be said for the psalmist having all God’s people are in view. So the NRSV describes the servants as those who “stand by night in the house of the Lord”. We are, perhaps, to imagine pilgrims coming together for a prayer-vigil on the last evening of a festival.

Come bless the Lord” says the psalmist in the NRSV version.

The GNB reads: “Come praise the Lord”.   To bless is to praise.  It always amuses me that some people, when asked to say Grace at a meal, think they are meant to bless the food, whereas in fact their task is to bless God.

Yes, when we bless God, we praise God for his goodness.

In the words of Derek Kidner, “To bless God is to acknowledge gratefully what he is”.

Lift up your hands to the holy place, and bless the Lord”.

It all sounds somewhat charismatic. But in fact, to lift up hands was a traditional accompaniment to praise and prayer.  See Psalm 64.3,4: “Because our steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you. So I will lift up my hands and call on your name”.  Psalm 28.2: “Hear the voice of my supplication as I cry to you for help, as I lift up my hands towards your most holy sanctuary”.  We find the same expression in 1 Tim 2.8: “I desire… that in every place men should pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or argument”.

In the Cathedral it tends to be just the clergy who lift up their hands – but maybe there is something to be said for everybody to get involved!

May the Lord bless you” (v3)

Yes, as the pilgrims begin the return home from Jerusalem, they seek God’s blessing – not just on the journey home, but on their everyday lives at home..

How does God bless?  In the words of James L. May: “Blessing is the Lord at work in human work. Huyan living is dependent on blessing in its personal, social and national dimensions (Psalm 127). The family, the community and the world are brought to life-supporting and life-fulfilling completeness and rightness by the Lord’s blessing” .

Incidentally, notice how God is described here: “May the Lord, maker of heaven and earth, bless you from Zion”.  God’s resources for blessing are infinite!

I don’t think what the psalmist has in mind a formal blessing of the kind that we tend to have at the end of a service. But perhaps here we have a reminder that the concluding blessing is a preparation for worshippers as they return to live and serve God in the world beyond the church.

I confess that when I first began as a minister my benedictions were somewhat perfunctory. But as the years passed by the exercise of seeking God’s blessing for life beyond the church became more important, and I gave a good deal of thought and care to the words I used. How do you feel?

Nancy deClaisse-Walford gives an example of a benediction crafted by John Claypool, an American Episcopalian priest which she described as “the most memorable benedictory words” she had ever encountered:

Depart now in the fellowship of God the father,
And as you go, remember:
In the Goodness of God you were born into this world;
By the Grace of God you have been kept all the day long, even until this hour;
And by the Love of God, fully revealed in the face of Jesus, you.. are being… Redeemed. Amen

REFLECTION

  • The worship of God here has the twin purpose of worship of praising God and receiving his blessing. Is one more important to you than another?
  • How physical does worship need to be for you? Does lifting hands out to God help?
  • What for you is the purpose of a formal blessing or benediction? To what extent do you leave church feeling blessed?

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