How good and how pleasant it is when kindred live together in harmony. (1)
That’s the simple message of this psalm. Like most of the psalms of ascent, it’s short and sweet. During thepandemic in 2020, Psalm 133 seems particularly resonant — an urgent, almost strident message for our times.
Some unusual but enticing images adorn the short song. In the second verse:
It is like the precious oil on the head, running down upon the beard, on the beard of Aaron
Familial unity is like a traditional sign of blessing, an anointing of people in need or seeking relief. The pristine state of the high priest’s fine robes are quite unimportant against the value of a holy blessing.
Then in the third and final verse, we read of the dew of Hermon flowing down upon the hills of Zion. Familial harmony is now likened to a blessing spreading gently down from the snowy heights to envelop villages and streets, everyday dwellings in the foothills. In the original historical setting, this reference to Hermon in the northern kingdom (now on the Lebanon-Syria border) and Zion, the mount of Jerusalem in the southern kingdom, suggest that this was a prayer for national as well as societal or family unity.
Zion is also shorthand for a holy habitation for all peoples. The psalms reflect other passages, such as in Isaiah, declaring the inclusivity of the temple:
Maintain justice … And the foreigners who join themselves to God … these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; … for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. God gathers the outcasts of Israel, and will gather others to them besides those already gathered.Isaiah 56:1-8
The scene gets more complex if, like Jesus, you raise the question of who is kin, who is your brother or sister? (Matthew 12:49-50) Thus opening the frame and perspective more widely immediately throws racism and such discriminatory human instincts into the limelight.
However we define the tribe and non-discrimination, we have a long way to go in establishing habits of equity, as called for in the Psalter. Similarly, bringing Hermon and Zion together and uniting Israel’s northern and southern kingdoms, revolutionary as it may have seemed at the time, was only one small step. The world needs needs a huge leap. Today, rising nationalism and exceptionalism are not only a danger to peace but contrary to the moral standards of respect indicated in the psalms. Taken together, the psalms 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 — and act accordingly.
Abeautiful old Anglo-Saxon manuscript in the British Library from the 8th Century, shown above, records the psalms in Latin in an insular uncial script (capitals) 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? The universality and relevance of the psalms to life experience encourages us to search widely into other cultures, sampling how they have responded musically.
In the days of assembled worship we enjoyed the Spanish setting in Psalms For All Seasons 133D:
¡Miren qué bueno, qué bueno es! / Oh, look in wonder how good it is!
As expected, the mix of styles found online for Psalm 133 range from early chant (see below), William Byrd’s Ecce quam bonum, to Samuel Wesley’s Behold how good it is and more modern songs. Some of them present just verse 1. (Together in Song skips Psalm 132 to 135 altogether.)
Somewhat less exuberant than the Spanish rhythms is the following recording of Gregorian chant: