Psalm 133, 20 Aug 17

How good and how pleasant it is when kindred live together in harmony. That’s it, folks; the message of this psalm in a nutshell — or as an immigrant friend used to say unawares: “… in a nutcase.” Like most of the psalms of ascent, it’s short and sweet. There are a couple of images thrown in to help us savour the psalmist’s case — and they are typical of the psalms, images that stir your imagination, make you think:

  • Fine oil upon the head, flowing down upon the beard, upon the collars of Aaron’s robe. The pristine state of the high priest’s fine robes just don’t count against the value of a holy blessing.

  • The dew of Hermon flowing down upon the hills of Zion. Familial harmony is a blessing spreading gently down from the snowy heights upon the villages and streets of everyday dwellings in the foothills.

The scene gets more complex if, like Jesus, you open the question of who is kin, who is your brother or sister? (Matthew 12:49-50) Do you have to be Tutsi, Jewish, Sunni, Russian, Protestant … ? However we define the tribe and non-discrimination, we have a long way to go in establishing habits of equity. In the original historical setting, the references to the hills of Hermon in the north and Zion in the south (verse 3) suggest this is a prayer for national unity. Fine, but nationalism unchecked is also a danger to peace. The psalms taken together suggest that it is only in seeking the rule of divine principles, love and justice that we start to see others in a clear light.

Psalm 133 in the Vespasian Psalter; British Library, Cotton MS Vesp A1.

A beautiful old Anglo-Saxon manuscript in the British Library from the 8th Century, shown above, records the psalms in Latin in an insular uncial script (capital letters) in common use around 700 CE. Easily seen, the initial capital begins the word Ecce, ‘Behold’. The text line in dark red gives the psalm number (132 in the Vulgate system) and the descriptor ‘Song of ascents’ (canticum graduum). This text then follows:

Behold, how good and joyful a thing it is, brethren, to dwell together in unity. (V.1, BCP)

The British Library description goes on to reveal in matter-of-fact tone some quite impressive information:

The text is the earliest surviving example of St Jerome’s first translation of the Psalms (the Roman version), first written c. 384. It was copied during the second quarter of the 8th century.

A close examination reveals some smaller writing in a brown ink between the lines. BL continues:

An Old English gloss was added around the second quarter of the 9th century by the Royal Bible Master Scribe, whose hand appears in other manuscripts owned by or made at St Augustine’s Abbey, Canterbury. This gloss is the oldest extant translation into English of any biblical text.

This manuscript reaches right back to earliest steps on the path taken by the psalms in reaching out to readers and singers across the world. What paths did the psalms trace in finding their way into hundreds of other languages and cultures? This universality of life experience inspires the search for cultural sampling in our music. An interesting mix of styles can be found for Psalm 133, ranging from a William Byrd’s Ecce quam bonum to Samuel Wesley’s Behold how good it is, for male voices in three parts. Many of them present just verse 1. (Together in Song skips Psalm 132 to 135 altogether.) However, in the interests of variety and a good sing, a fine modern choice for this psalm might be a Spanish setting in PFAS 133D:

¡Miren qué buono, qué buono es! / Oh, look in wonder how good it is!

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