Note: As with most of the the other outlines I have posted on this blog, this expositional outline was originally used for teaching on a Sunday morning at Immanuel Baptist Church, where I have been blessed to serve as the primary teaching elder for more than twenty years. This outline is yet another sample of the kind of expository teaching to which we Reformed Baptist pastors are committed and about which we are so passionate. If you wish to hear the audio of the teaching from back in 2012, you can listen here.
Introduction: What measures did you take to prepare your heart before you came here this morning to worship the Lord? Did you spend time in prayer about it last night? Did you pray about it when you woke up this morning? Did you perhaps sing or listen to worship songs at home or in the car on the way here? Or did you do nothing in particular? If not, then I encourage you to pay special attention to this morning's teaching, for we will see that David thought it was very important to prepare our hearts as we come together as a community of believers to worship the Lord. It is my hope that we will all learn from him today more about how we ought to come before the Lord in worship.
Notice first of all that this psalm has a title: “A Song of Ascents. Of David.” The Songs of Ascents are made up of Psalms 120-134. These fifteen Psalms were apparently written to be sung by the people of the Lord as they went up to the Temple in Jerusalem to worship. They may therefore be regarded as songs designed to prepare the hearts of the people for worship in the Temple. As we shall see in Psalm 133, this meant that the people were prepared for worship only if they recognized the blessing and importance of doing so as a part of a community of the faithful. With this in mind, let's turn our attention now to verse 1.
NKJ Psalm 133:1 Behold [הִנֵּה, hinnēh], how good and how pleasant it is for brethren [אָח, āḥ] to dwell together in unity!
Charles Spurgeon comments helpfully on David's call to “behold” the unity of the brethren when he writes:
It is a wonder seldom seen, therefore behold it! It may be seen, for it is the characteristic of real saints, therefore fail not to inspect it! It is well worthy of admiration; pause and gaze upon it! It will charm you into imitation, therefore note it well! God looks on with approval, therefore consider it with attention. (Treasury of David, e-Sword).
I think he has captured well the sense of wonder and excitement David wants us to have as we consider with him the blessing of the brethren who live together before the Lord in unity. But it is important to recognize that, when David speaks of the “brethren” here, he does not have in mind only close family relationships. Rather he has in mind at a minimum all of his fellow Israelites who find their unity in their common commitment to the Law of God. This is in keeping with other Old Testament uses of the Hebrew word for brother or brethren, which also clearly demonstrate such a meaning. For example, let's take a look at just a few instances in the Book of Deuteronomy:
NKJ Deuteronomy 15:1-3 At the end of every seven years you shall grant a release of debts. 2 And this is the form of the release: Every creditor who has lent anything to his neighbor shall release it; he shall not require it of his neighbor or his brother, because it is called the LORD's release. 3 Of a foreigner you may require it; but you shall give up your claim to what is owed by your brother [אָח, āḥ] ….
Notice that a “brother” here is not just a member of one's immediate family, but anyone who is not a foreigner, even if that person is poor. In other words, a brother is a fellow Israelite, no matter what his social standing. We see the same thing as we look further on in the same passage:
NKJ Deuteronomy 15:12 If your brother [אָח, āḥ], a Hebrew man, or a Hebrew woman, is sold to you and serves you six years, then in the seventh year you shall let him go free from you.
Again we see that a fellow Israelite is regarded as a “brother” even if he is of inferior social standing, in this case even if he is a slave.
NKJ Deuteronomy 25:1-3 If there is a dispute between men, and they come to court, that the judges may judge them, and they justify the righteous and condemn the wicked, 2 then it shall be, if the wicked man deserves to be beaten, that the judge will cause him to lie down and be beaten in his presence, according to his guilt, with a certain number of blows. 3 Forty blows he may give him and no more, lest he should exceed this and beat him with many blows above these, and your brother [אָח, āḥ] be humiliated in your sight.
Notice in this case that a fellow Israelite is to be regarded as a “brother” even if he has offended you and deserves to be punished. And because he is your brother you should want to be merciful to him even if you have to inflict punishment upon him.
Thus we have seen that the Old Testament usage of the term brother could refer not just to one's immediate family, but to anyone who is a fellow Israelite. However, I would argue that David's usage of the term here, while similarly broader than simply one's own immediate family, is nevertheless restricted to only some other Israelites, namely those who are like-minded in their commitment to the Lord. For in this context David has in mind all of those who come together to worship the Lord, no matter who they are. He is speaking, then, of the community of the faithful as though they are themselves a family, a spiritual family, if you will.
Remember that this is a “Song of Ascents,” intended to be sung by the faithful who travel to Jerusalem and go up to the Temple to worship. So, when David refers to the “brethren” in verse 1, he means all those who come to worship God together, no matter who they are – no matter what their social or economic standing (Deut. 15:3,12), and no matter whether or not they may have offended you at some point (Deut. 25:3).
But, although David wrote this Psalm to be sung as one ascended up to Jerusalem and to the Temple to worship, and in order to describe the unity of such people, he clearly intends that the unity expressed as they worship together should also be present in the totality of their lives as they “dwell together” – or live together – in the land. Otherwise, they could not sing this song with sincerity when they came to worship.
David is assuming, then, that sincere worship is reflected in our lives and in the way we treat one another, and he is assuming that sincere worship can only take place when we live together in unity as we should. In this he anticipates Jesus' teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, when He said:
NKJ Matthew 5:23-24 Therefore if you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.
Jesus clearly assumes that we cannot truly worship the Lord if there is a problem in our relationship with a brother, if there is a sin that has not been reconciled. Thus we may see that because of our sins we may often have obstacles to unity.
William Barrick, Professor of Old Testament at The Master’s Seminary, reminds us of the potential obstacles to unity the ancient Israelite believers may themselves have faced as they traveled to Jerusalem to worship:
Pilgrims faced not only the potential disharmony within individual families, but the tensions of getting along with others in competition for the same resources for lodging, food, and water. In addition, there may have been clan rivalries that could disrupt the peace of a pilgrim encampment after days of weary travel. (Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs: The Master Musician’s Melodies, p. 2)
We too experience many obstacles to genuine worship don't we? For example, we also have to travel to worship the Lord together on Sunday morning, and there may be any number of distractions as we travel, ranging from bad drivers on the road, unexpected delays, cranky children in the back seat, a cold shoulder from a spouse that we should have told we were sorry for something we said or did the night before, the sudden reminder of a problem at work, and so on.
But despite such obstacles, the Lord would have us remember “how good and how pleasant” it is for us to live together in unity with our spiritual brothers and sisters. This will help to motivate us to put things right with others before we come to worship Him. It will help us to remember that we must not only love God with all our heart, but that we cannot really do so if we do not also love our brother.
However, we might be thinking about how hard this is, and we might be wondering how on earth we could ever come consistently before the Lord with such love and unity between us. Well, David points us to the answer in the next two verses, where he reminds us of the fact that such unity is first and foremost a blessing that comes from God.
NKJ Psalm 133:2 It is like the precious oil upon the head, running down[יָרַד, yāraḏ] on the beard, the beard of Aaron, running down[יָרַד, yāraḏ] on the edge of his garments.
At first we might be wondering what on earth oil running down Aaron's beard has to do with unity, or with how good and pleasant unity is! How can unity be like oil? Well, perhaps we will understand better if we find out a bit more about this oil. For the “precious oil” mentioned here is oil that was especially mixed with spices and was to be used only for the anointing of the priests and the articles of the Tabernacle – and later the Temple. We read about this precious oil in Exodus 30:
NKJ Exodus 30:22-33 Moreover the LORD spoke to Moses, saying: 23 “Also take for yourself quality spices – five hundred shekels of liquid myrrh, half as much sweet-smelling cinnamon (two hundred and fifty shekels), two hundred and fifty shekels of sweet-smelling cane, 24 five hundred shekels of cassia, according to the shekel of the sanctuary, and a hin of olive oil. 25 And you shall make from these a holy anointing oil, an ointment compounded according to the art of the perfumer. It shall be a holy anointing oil. 26 With it you shall anoint the tabernacle of meeting and the ark of the Testimony; 27 the table and all its utensils, the lampstand and its utensils, and the altar of incense; 28 the altar of burnt offering with all its utensils, and the laver and its base. 29 You shall consecrate them, that they may be most holy; whatever touches them must be holy. 30 And you shall anoint Aaron and his sons, and consecrate them, that they may minister to Me as priests. 31 And you shall speak to the children of Israel, saying: 'This shall be a holy anointing oil to Me throughout your generations. 32 It shall not be poured on man's flesh; nor shall you make any other like it, according to its composition. It is holy, and it shall be holy to you. 33 Whoever compounds any like it, or whoever puts any of it on an outsider, shall be cut off from his people.'”
So, we see that, in comparing the goodness and pleasantness of unity between believers to the precious anointing oil, David pictures this unity as something that is special, valuable, unique, giving off a sweet aroma – i.e. creating a pleasant atmosphere around us – and, above all, he pictures such unity as something that is holy. This oil signifies that which is precious to God. And the anointing of Aaron with this oil signified God's special blessing upon him.
David also describes this oil as “running down” Aaron's beard and his garments. So, he wishes for us to see our unity not only as a special sign of God's blessing, but as a sign of His blessing poured out in abundance.
NKJ Psalm 133:3 It is like the dew of Hermon, descending [יָרַד, yāraḏ] upon the mountains of Zion; for there the LORD commanded the blessing -- Life forevermore.
Willem VanGemeren describes the significance of this metaphor when he writes:
Because of the high altitude of Mount Hermon (nearly ten thousand feet above sea level) and the precipitation in the forms of rain, snow, and dew, Mount Hermon was proverbial for its lush greenery even during the summer months … and for its dew that sustained the vegetation. (Expositor's Bible Commentary, Vol.5, p. 817)
David describes the unity of God's people as they live and worship together as though the dew of Hermon had descended upon Zion. He thus pictures God's people living and worshiping together in unity as something that is so refreshing that it is as though God had caused the dew of Hermon to fall upon Jerusalem.
When David says “there” the LORD commanded the blessing, he perhaps means at Zion, the particular place where God's people came to worship. But it is likely that by “there” he simply means wherever God's people live and worship in unity. Derek Kidner was right on when he wrote:
The second half of verse 3, with its strong accent on God's initiative (commanded) and on what is only His to give (life forevermore), clinches another emphasis of the psalm, which is made by a threefold repetition, partly lost in translation: literally, 'descending' (2a)… 'descending' (2b)… 'descending' (3a). In short, true unity, like all good gifts, is from above; bestowed rather than contrived, a blessing far more than an achievement. (Tyndale Old Testament Commentary, Vol. 14b, p. 453)
By ending with a focus on the ultimate blessing of God – everlasting life – as something experienced in unity with God's people, David emphasizes a very important fact that too many do not understand in the Church, namely that we are not fully experiencing the joy of the life we have from God if we are not experiencing it together! Where there is not real unity among believers, there is lacking also a full expression of the life of the age to come in the here and now!
Paul made essentially the same point when he addressed some issues that could potentially disrupt the unity of the church in Rome:
NKJ Romans 14:13-19 Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather resolve this, not to put a stumbling block or a cause to fall in our brother's way. 14 I know and am convinced by the Lord Jesus that there is nothing unclean of itself; but to him who considers anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean. 15 Yet if your brother is grieved because of your food, you are no longer walking in love. Do not destroy with your food the one for whom Christ died. 16 Therefore do not let your good be spoken of as evil; 17 for the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. 18 For he who serves Christ in these things is acceptable to God and approved by men. 19 Therefore let us pursue the things which make for peace and the things by which one may edify another.
Jesus also taught this important truth when He said that our joy would be full in the experience of love toward one another:
NKJ John 15:9-12 As the Father loved Me, I also have loved you; abide in My love. 10 If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love, just as I have kept My Father's commandments and abide in His love. 11 These things I have spoken to you, that My joy may remain in you, and that your joy may be full. 12 This is My commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.
Conclusion: It is my hope that today we will all commit ourselves more fully and passionately than ever to Christ and to His body, the Church. We must never forget that the Christian faith is about relationships. It is about our relationship first to God, and then to one another, and these two spheres of interpersonal relationships cannot be severed. As the Apostle John reminds us:
NKJ 1 John 4:20-21 If someone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen? 21 And this commandment we have from Him: that he who loves God must love his brother also.