“Has it ever occurred to you that one hundred pianos all tuned to the same fork are automatically tuned to each other?”
I don’t remember the specific time and place I first read these memorable words in A.W. Tozer’s classic The Pursuit of God. But I do know that as a college sophomore and junior I read the whole of chapter 7, “The Gaze of the Soul,” over and over again. My tattered 1990s paperback has plenty of proof. Tozer continues,
[Pianos] are of one accord by being tuned, not to each other, but to another standard to which one must individually bow. So one hundred worshipers meeting together, each one looking away to Christ, are in heart nearer to each other than they could possibly be were they to become “unity” conscious and turn their eyes away from God to strive for closer fellowship. (90)
Even when I first read it, the piano-tuning resonated. Now, two decades later, the rough and tumble of adult life in my twenties and thirties has deeply confirmed it. And in the past two-plus years — which some of us consider the most generally divisive we’ve lived through — Tozer’s word about finding “closer fellowship” through a shared Godward gaze (rather than “unity” consciousness or focus) shines with fresh light.
We need not simply take Tozer’s word for it, though. We have biblical granite for this: the “vivid little psalm,” as Derek Kidner calls it, that is Psalm 133. “Behold,” the psalmist begins, “how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!”
Longing for Lost Unity?
The psalm is one of the fifteen “Songs of Ascents” (Psalms 120–134) that Israelite pilgrims would rehearse as they ascended the landscape to Jerusalem for three annual feasts (Deuteronomy 16:16). Psalm 133 includes no superscript locating it at any specific event in David’s life. Some speculate that its origin was that remarkable (and brief) season of a fully unified nation under the newly established king, with the ark in Jerusalem, from 2 Samuel 6–12. Or perhaps — and this would be more arresting — the occasion was later in David’s life, in days riddled with division, intrigue, and uncertainty, as the aging king longs for the unity he experienced in his youth, and looks back on those earlier days of peace with new, more appreciative eyes.
Whatever the backdrop, David attempts to seize our rapt attention with his first word: “Behold.” Listen up. Don’t miss what I’m about to say.
Brothers Don’t Always Dwell Together
“How good and pleasant it is,” he then sings. Unity is both objectively good and subjectively pleasant — and all the more so after navigating the pains and distresses of disunity and division. Many of us know this far better now and feel it far deeper than we did not long ago.
“When brothers dwell together” echoes the language of Deuteronomy 25:5 (“If brothers dwell together . . .”) and communicates two realities. First is that “brothers” are truly, objectively brothers in some sense that formally binds them together, whether by blood or covenant. But brothers in fact does not presume brothers in function. Sadly, many brothers are estranged. Others are constantly at odds. And sometimes it’s the very bonds of brotherhood that can make it all the more difficult for brothers, of all people, to live in harmony.
The second reality, then, is their dwelling together. These brothers are not only related; they live in proximity. They get along. Psalm 133 celebrates brothers who don’t move away from each other but stay together, draw near, and “dwell in unity.” Such brothers are not only unified in blood or covenant, but in practice. They are not only brothers but neighbors — for their mutual benefit and enjoyment.
In this way, we might call this a city psalm, rather than a country psalm — urban in the best sense. It makes for beautiful words to put on the lips of pilgrims as they come together from north, south, east, and west to dwell and feast together in Jerusalem.
Running Down: Mountain Dew
What about the strange and vivid pictures in the next two verses? Let’s turn first to the stranger image (at least to modern readers), then come back to oil on the head.
Verse 3 claims that such unity, brothers dwelling together, “is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion!” Hermon was (and is) the tallest mountain in the region, sitting at the northern border of the united kingdom in David’s day. Hermon is four times the height of Zion (Jerusalem) and had a reputation in that arid region as a mountain of moisture and heavy dew. At its height, it gathers snow, which melts and runs off. Its springs feed the Jordan River, which runs south to the Sea of Galilee, then further south to the Dead Sea. Hermon was proverbial for heavy dew, and was the source of life-sustaining water to those who lived below and beyond.
In an arid land like Israel, where is little to no rainfall during the summer (from May to September), even dew is seen as a blessing (Isaiah 18:4), falling from above (Proverbs 3:20; Haggai 1:10; Zechariah 8:12), indeed from God himself (Micah 5:7). The “dew of heaven” drops as life-giving, life-sustaining mercy (Isaiah 26:19) — or is withheld in divine severity. Dew, then, serves a sign of God’s blessing (Deuteronomy 33:28; 2 Samuel 1:21).
Yet, dew comes at night and goes away quickly (Hosea 6:4; 13:3). Unlike a thunderstorm, dew comes quietly, appearing, as it were, out of thin air, almost magically. The day ends dry, no thunder sounds, no rain showers fall overnight, yet morning dawns and the dew of life has formed — as a gift from heaven.
But what does dew have to do with unity? The key is in this falling (or “running down”) from above, which ties it to the other picture in the psalm.
Running Down: Beard Oil
Twice verse 2 accents the “running down” of anointing oil. Brothers dwelling in unity, David says, “is like the precious oil on the head, running down on the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running down on the collar of his robes!” Pair those with the running down of the Hermon’s heavy dew falling on arid Jerusalem and we have an important threefold emphasis: the blessing of unity comes from above, and often unexpectedly. In other words, God is the giver of true unity.
“Unity is a gift to be received, not achieved.”
Try as we may to be unity conscious and focused, and work as we might with human effort and strategy to establish unity, it will be thin and short-lived if it is not from God. As Kidner comments, “True unity, like all good gifts, is from above; bestowed rather than contrived, a blessing far more than an achievement” (134).
The psalm’s last line, at the end of verse 3, confirms this: “For there [Zion] the Lord has commanded the blessing, life forevermore.” Unity is a gift to be received, not achieved — and God has commanded his blessing to fall on his terms, in his timing, and in a particular place. Under the terms of the old covenant, that place was Zion.
But how, then, would the psalm guide us today? Where do we look for unity in this age, if we do not turn to unity itself?
Brothers in the Elder Brother
As the pilgrims singing Psalm 133 journeyed to Jerusalem, they looked up to Zion and, in doing so, found camaraderie with others looking up and striving toward the same hill. When they finally arrived in Jerusalem, they found themselves with brothers, having ascended the mount from all directions, dwelling together for the feast.
“True unity, deep and enduring, is the divine effect and gift of the Godward gaze.”
So too today, God would have our pilgrim gaze be upwards first. Our God, and his truth, is not the servant of human endeavors at unity. Rather true unity, deep and enduring, is the divine effect and gift of the Godward gaze. To find true unity, we look elsewhere first: up to God, through his word. And as we do, and receive God’s gift of himself, we discover others in the same pursuit. Looking deeply into the Scriptures, we find comrades also living in glad submission to God’s word and in the pursuit of his truth. In this way, unity falls on us, often surprisingly, as a blessing from heaven.
And in Christ — who is our head (Ephesians 1:22; 4:15; 5:23) and whose very title means Anointed — we now experience what those ancient pilgrims longed for, and hoped for, and could not yet fully enjoy, or even fathom. What they sought in Zion and the first covenant, we now have in Jesus, as the precious oil of divine favor runs down from his beard to us, his body. We are brothers and sisters who gather not to a single appointed temple but rally to a single anointed person, dwelling together with each other as we draw closer to him.