This term at Breakfast with the Bible we have been studying the ‘Psalms of Ascent’ (Psalm 120 – 134). I had the privilege of leading the studies on Psalms 122 & 123 and Psalms 133 & 134. Let me give you a flavour with my exposition of Psalm 134 – ‘Living in harmony’.
“How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity” (v1 NRSV). Some scholars have argued that this Psalm was originally about the joys of family life. I am not convinced. This psalm was ‘a song of ascent’ sung by Jewish pilgrims as they made their way to Jerusalem for one of the great festivals. They 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. As the GNB puts it: “How wonderful it is, how pleasant, for God’s people to live together in harmony”.
I like the word “harmony”. 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 what the Apostle 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). Most churches are 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 we 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 NRSV). 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” (Artur 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 in the UK 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: 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 purposes the death sentence pronounced upon it. People will not come to a church which, to quote the ditty, is ‘Gothic in architecture, arctic in temperature and where the deacons [or church wardens] 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 in church? When have you not? How might we create harmony when there is disunity?
Though it always feels good from a human point of view to liaise with people who are of similar views, I have been amazed how possible it is to feel in harmony with people with a very different take on faith provided there is respect and love ( of the agape sort) between the different parties, and a deep friendship can grow between such people. Conversely , where people insist that theirs is the right view to which everyone else must be won over, there is breakdown in harmony.We must aim to be a place where people of all sorts of views and types can learn to grow together; where people coming into the church sense that they can be themselves (and allow others to be themselves, of course!)